Drag Me to Hell is the kind of movie that would have brought a smile to the face of infamous showman director William Castle, who would hide buzzers in seats and dangle plastic skeletons on wires to get an amused reaction from movie audiences. Critics often compare movies to rollercoaster rides, and Castle might have suggested someone hook co-writer/director Sam Raimi's return to the horror genre up to an actual rollercoaster, so the audience could get flung around like poor heroine Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) as she desperately tries to escape a curse placed on her by a shamed old woman (Lorna Raver). It's a shame he can't, but then again, it isn't even necessary. The movie is a ride already.
After months of terrible slasher pictures, two factors stand out: Raimi's respect for his audience, and his desire to make being terrified fun again. He and his co-writer brother Ivan (the writing team that gave us Darkman, and, of course, Army of Darkness) know that fans go in expecting to jump out of their seats, and it's twice as entertaining if the film's direction lets the audience in on the joke. When Christine looks out the window at a horrendous creaking sound, Raimi cuts closer and closer on her face several times in rapid succession because he wants the viewer to get up on their toes and grab their dates in advance, and when the scare arrives, it's almost cathartic in its amusement. Raimi described the style as "spook-a-blast", which encapsulates his technique perfectly. If you're not laughing after every scream in Drag Me to Hell, then you're only getting half of the experience.
Anyone worried by the movie's trailer and big studio backing -- and worst of all, the dreaded PG-13 rating -- that Raimi isn't going to go all the way with this one can also put their fears to rest. The first thing you'll notice is the sound; Drag Me to Hell is one of the loudest movies I can remember seeing. Weird compliment, I know, but it's funny in and of itself; I laughed because it's like Raimi wants the viewer to experience Christine's physical torment through the abusive soundtrack. Also, while I don't agree with the opinion that this is Evil Dead 4 with a different wrapper, it's hard not to flash back to Raimi's other films when a possessed lackey, decked out in signature KNB makeup, dances comically in the air above a flaming table, or when any number of gross-out fluids spew on the movie's hapless characters. Raimi even slaps the 80's Universal logo on the front of the movie and the studio's 70's logo at the very end.
Drag was originally meant to star Ellen Page of Juno fame, but her usual cynical demeanor would have derailed Raimi's intentions. Lohman plays Christine with more naÔvete than Page could have mustered (or, perhaps, has ever mustered), but that cluelessness is an important plot point. Much like Bruce Campbell's Ash, Christine just doesn't understand how she's ultimately responsible for everything that happens to her, and her inability to come to terms with it actually drives the plot forward. You also wouldn't have been able to buy Page liking a dork like Christine's boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long). Clay is a different type of naÔve, believing that Christine's accursed affliction can be chalked up to post-traumatic stress disorder. So often in movies, the skeptic is meant to be relatable to the audience, representing the audience's disbelief, but Raimi plays Clay's dismissal as darkly laughable.
The movie breezes by at a cool 99 minutes. It only takes three days for the lamia to take you away, so Christine has to go with the first person willing to help her, which turns out to be Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a supposed psychic whose potential con-man status is amusingly unresolved by both the script and Rao's quiet performance. He suggests a number of solutions, including an animal sacrifice, a sťance (the film's most spectacular, armrest-gripping sequence), and trying to give the curse away, for the low, low price of at least $10,060 (he accepts American Express).
The film's only flaws are a bunch of noticeable CGI (although it's generally used where practical effects would be prohibitively complicated or impossible), and a predictable third-act twist, but everything in the movie is executed with enough enthusiasm that the movie stays entertaining even through the rough patches. Some people won't like the jump-scare style of the movie, either, but I can't imagine a genre fan who hasn't seen or didn't like Evil Dead II rushing out to buy Drag, and the kind of people who watched the Prom Night remake probably aren't going to be all that worried about it.
It's disappointing that the movie didn't do better in theaters, because Drag Me to Hell delivers. This is a movie that's a total blast with a like-minded, vocal audience (tell your friends!), and it's great to get Raimi back, even if it's just for one picture. I criticized the trailer before, but it's right about one thing: this is a return to true funhouse horror, delivered with impish glee by one of the genre's modern maestros. As Christine is repeatedly besieged by a floating corpse as she tries to crawl out of a flooding graveyard plot, I couldn't help but wonder if Sam himself was under the water, insistently jabbing the prop at his lead actress, trying to get a rise out of her, and by extension, the audience. It's Raimi's version of the seat buzzer, and I imagine that somewhere, William Castle is cackling with delight.
The Unrated Version
That said, the art is fine, although I'm disappointed the film's excellent tagline got the boot in favor of a banner announcing Raimi and a "sticker" (part of the artwork) pointing out the 2 versions of the film. It comes in a nice slip, inside an eco-LITE case (the kind that uses less plastic instead of having big holes in it), without an insert, and the disc is black-paint with the disc surface forming letters and logos.
The Video and Audio
That said, the key to this movie is the audio. As I wrote above, the soundtrack to Drag Me to Hell is a thunderous, intentionally violent experience, and the Dolby 5.1 track is pretty extreme. If you have the option of buying the movie on Blu-Ray, I imagine it will sound truly phenomenal with uncompressed audio, but all the same, Drag Me to Hell on DVD should give your speaker system a hell of a workout. The aforementioned parking garage scene is a masterpiece of mixing (my favorite effect being the thunk and squeak of Christine's forehead on her car window), and the sťance should rattle your windows at the intended volume level. In a baffling move, Universal has also included an English 2.0 track, along with French and Spanish in 5.1, plus English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles.
Trailers for Bruno, Public Enemies, Universal Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Blu-Ray, "Battlestar Galactica": The Plan, The Limits of Control and Land of the Lost play before the menu. No trailer for Drag Me to Hell is included.